Published September 13, 2011
When most people think of prostate cancer, they think of a disease that targets “old men.”
Not Gabe Canales.
The 37-year-old public relations executive from Houston, Texas, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the young age of 35. He decided to be proactive and using his professional connections, he founded The Blue Cure Foundation, which promotes awareness for the disease.
“I felt fine, looked fine,” Canales said. “I talked to my buddies, of all ages, well-educated guys, and they knew nothing about prostate cancer.”
After the initial shock of being diagnosed, Canales decided he wanted to do something that raised the disease’s level of awareness.
“It’s the number one male cancer, and I was shocked – it has very low awareness,” Canales said. “It’s not on par with other campaigns. Something needed to be done.”
Blue Cure T-shirts are now sold at Sun & Ski Sports around the country, and celebrities like Fran Drescher and Bob Saget are sporting their “not just an old man’s cancer” slogan. Canales speaks publicly about the importance of being screened, and even filmed a public service announcement as September is Prostate Cancer Awareness month.
Canales was diagnosed by accident. A routine physical showed he had low testosterone levels, so his doctor referred him to a urologist – who accidentally ran a PSA blood test. This blood test showed his levels were high, so Canales went ahead and had a biopsy performed. Once cancer was confirmed, he went to five different doctors for opinions on how to treat it.
“I needed to feel comfortable with the decision I made,” he said, noting that some of the doctors had conflicting opinions.
Canales decided to change his lifestyle. Already an athlete, he started eating organically and modified his diet. He cut out red meat and increased the amount of vegetables he ate.
“I think this diet reduces inflammation in the body,” he said.
Although a MRI showed two black spots, a subsequent biopsy of 10 random spots did not detect cancer; however doctors will not deem Canales cured.
"It could be that the cancer is there, but it was missed," Canales said. "We don't know, but I'll have another biopsy a year the last one, and this biopsy will be a 'saturation' biopsy, which will take 24 samples instead of 12."
Dr. Philipa Cheetham, a board-certified urologist who specializes in prostate cancer Columbia University Medical Center, said Canales may be onto something.
“There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to support diet and prostate cancer to both prostate cancer-causing foods and prostate cancer-protective foods,” she said. “There is certainly evidence from more than 25 studies that support the fact that the more red meat a man eats, the higher his risk of developing the disease. There are also numerous studies that show fried foods, processed foods, saturated animal fats and a diet high in animal dairy increases the risk of prostate cancer – and can accelerate the progression of the disease in those who have it.”
Treating the Problem
For now, Canales is choosing an active holistic surveillance method – much like the “watchful waiting” method that is used in older men who have other medical conditions, or in men like Canales who have a low-volume, low-grade disease, said Cheetham, who has not treated Canales, but knows him through the Blue Cure Foundation.
“In younger men, it is called active surveillance, we would not simply monitor,” Cheetham said. “We would do a repeat biopsy every six to 12 months after the original biopsy to confirm the cancer is still low-volume, low-grade. If diet and lifestyle changes are managed aggressively, this is called active holistic surveillance and can make a huge difference to a successful outcome.”
Other common treatments for prostate cancer include:
• Surgery, or a radical prostatectomy, which removes the prostate and surrounding tissue and seminal vesicles. Side effects may include urine leakage or difficulty obtaining an erection.
• Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to kill the cancerous cells.
• Hormone therapy, which controls the disease, but does not cure it. Side effects can include hot flashes, impaired sexual function, loss of sexual desire and/or weakened bones.
• Prostate cryosurgery, which uses an instrument to freeze and destroy cancer cells. Side effects can include impotence and leakage of urine.
• Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body are used to boost, direct or restore the body’s natural defenses.
• High-intensity focused ultrasound is a treatment that uses ultrasound waves to destroy cancer cells.
• Proton-beam radiation therapy is a high-energy, external radiation therapy that targets tumors with streams of protons.
Defying the Odds
Cheetham said it is indeed rare for younger men like Canales to develop prostate cancer – about 80 percent of all diagnoses are in men over the age of 65.
Each year, 240,890 American men receive a prostate cancer diagnosis; of those, 32,000 will die, she said.
“Not everyone experiences symptoms of prostate cancer,” Cheetham said. “Many times, prostate cancer is first detected by a doctor during a routine check-up.”
However, some men may experience changes in urinary or sexual function, which could indicate the presence of cancer. These symptoms include, but are not limited to:
• A need to urinate frequently, especially at night
• Difficulty starting urination or holding back urine
• Weak or interrupted flow of urine
• Difficulty in having an erection
• Blood in urine or semen
“The question of screening is a personal and complex one,” Cheetham said. “There is no unanimous opinion in the medical community regarding the benefits of prostate cancer screening.
Those who advocate regular screening believe that finding and treating prostate cancer early offers men more treatment options with potentially fewer side effects.”
Cheetham said age 40 is a good time to start screening, for those who have the highest risk. If you are otherwise healthy, it may be OK to wait until the age of 45.
Canales said his campaign is having a positive effect on the city of Houston, which lit its city hall in blue for an entire week.
Also, his local Neiman Marcus is having a Blue Cure event this month and he hopes it’ll be nationwide in 2012.
“It’s not just older, white-haired guys,” Canales said. “We need more funding, more people to donate to research.”